Operant conditioning and classical conditioning are fundamental concepts in behavioral psychology that can be applied to dog training. While similar in some ways, these two concepts are based on very different principles. If you’re hoping to train your dog or correct unwanted behaviors, understanding the difference between classical and operant conditioning is critical. So what is the difference between operant conditioning and classical conditioning? Read on to learn about their distinction and find out which one is best for training your Dog.

Dog owner feeding his pup concept image for what is the difference between operant conditioning and classical conditioning.

What Is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning was first described by the American psychologist B.F. Skinner. The primary focus of this type of conditioning process is to either strengthen voluntary behaviors you’d like the dog to continue or eliminate voluntary behaviors you’d like your dog to stop. At its core, operant conditioning focuses on associating an unconditioned response with a consequence. This principle is sometimes also called instrumental conditioning and is the primary cornerstone of training and behavior modification used at The Dog Wizard.

Instrumental conditioning uses punishment or positive reinforcement to decrease or increase a behavior, depending on what you’re trying to do. Examples of positive reinforcement in operant conditioning include using treats to consistently praise a particular behavior you want your dog to keep doing, like sitting and staying. Or, you might use a negative punishment, like withholding attention when a dog jumps up on you.

At The Dog Wizard, we believe operant conditioning is the best training method because it more fully represents the ideology of “balanced training.”

What Is Classical Conditioning?

At its core, classical conditioning focuses on associating an involuntary response with a stimulus. You may have heard the story of Pavlov’s dogs, the first description of classical conditioning. In this famous experiment, a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov noticed that dogs would begin to salivate after hearing a specific tone presented alongside food and realized this could be used to create a conditioned response.

Thanks to its origins, you’ll sometimes hear classical conditioning called Pavlovian conditioning.

The salivating was an unconditioned response that the dogs weren’t taught. But pairing that natural response with an unconditioned stimulus naturally caused the dogs to associate that neutral stimulus (the bell) with food. Although it began as an unconditioned stimulus, with repetition, the sound of the bell eventually became a conditioned stimulus.

Although these classical conditioning examples show us that certain behaviors can be involuntary behaviors that we (or our dogs) don’t set out to do to please us, these involuntary behaviors can also be used as part of the learning process.

For example, you might use classical conditioning to teach your dog to sit and stay using a previously neutral stimulus like a bell, whistle or object. This would be used instead of positive and negative reinforcement. Then, whenever you wanted the dog to sit and stay, you’d present the object or make the noise. Eventually, your dog will have a conditioned response that pairs with that neutral stimulus and becomes a conditioned stimulus.

Dog trainer rewarding the dog with treats.

Key Differences Between Classical and Operant Conditioning

The methods used in operant and classical conditioning differ dramatically. But the main difference between the two is whether it’s focused on a voluntary behavior or an involuntary behavior.

In operant conditioning, or instrumental conditioning, the initial behavior is voluntary. Operant conditioning takes that initially unconditioned behavior and incorporates it into an active learning process that either rewards it if it’s desired or reprimands it if it’s something you don’t want your dog to do.

In classical conditioning, the initial behaviors are involuntary responses. This conditioning is primarily passive for the dog and uses natural associations to create a conditioned stimulus.

Why Choose Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning is a crucial part of the balanced training philosophy followed by The Dog Wizard. Balanced training approaches focus on creating a healthy balance between positive and negative consequences. Our trainers apply all four quadrants of operant learning, including positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment.

The system of rewarding good behavior and correcting negative behavior is done by using fair and reasonable consequences and rewards to gently yet firmly teach a dog how it’s supposed to behave. At The Dog Wizard, our philosophy is simple: To create a balanced dog, you must use a balanced training technique.

Need More Information?

Looking for more information on classical or operant conditioning? Or would you like to find professional help with operant conditioning dog training methods? Contact The Dog Wizard today at (877) 585-9727 to learn more about our dog training services. You can also fill out our online contact form if preferred and someone will be in touch as soon as possible.